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Excerpted with permission from Discovering Jewish Music (Jewish Publication Society).
Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994) was among the most unorthodox Orthodox rabbis of the 20th century. With a unique personality reflecting the full fervor of his adopted Hasidic background as well as a genuine love for his fellow Jew, Carlebach traveled North America telling stories, reaching out to Jews of all persuasions (including those with no affiliation), and using his talents to create melodies that touched his listeners and became instant staples in havurot [small prayer communities] and minyanim [prayer quorums] across the denominational spectrum. His setting of “Esa Einai” (Psalm 121), one of his earliest hits, was not originally intended for use in regular worship; however, the melody has been borrowed for use in conjunction with other texts, including the Sabbath Hymn of Glory (Anim Zemirot).
Some of the other Carlebach melodies that became regular parts of worship services were written for entry into Israel’s annual Hasidic Song Festival. In 1968 a small-budget Israeli play called Ish Hasid Haya (Once There Was a Hasid) brought traditional Hasidic songs and stories to the generally nonobservant masses who filled its audiences. The success of this material inspired enthusiasts to revitalize Hasidic music by soliciting songs–in an ostensibly Hasidic style–to be presented in an annual Israeli festival, starting in 1969. The fascination with most things Israeli on the part of many American Jews after the 1967 Six-Day War led Israeli promoters to bring a version of the Hasidic Song Festival to North American audiences.
The only things “Hasidic” about most of these songs were their relatively short melodies and traditional lyrics. Still, the presence of catchy new tunes for brief liturgical texts encouraged the use of many of these songs in the prayers of American Jews looking for easy-to-learn melodies and more congregational singing–even by congregants who were not fluent in Hebrew. Carlebach’s ve-Ha’er Einenu quickly jumped back into the morning services from which its lyrics were taken, and Nurit Hirsh’s (b. 1942) Oseh Shalom not only launched her subsequent career (limited almost exclusively to secular songs), but also became a staple of weekday and Sabbath services in countless synagogues across the continent….
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